So, a bizarre sixty game baseball season is about to start. It will be played with no one in the stands. There will be no sunflower seeds because there will be no spitting. No one will high five a teammate who just hit a grand slam. Managers will have to yell at umpires from six feet away (while wearing a mask). NL teams will have a DH. In extra innings teams start with a runner on second base.
But there will be baseball!
Before I go on, I should point out that I am an ardent baseball fan. Last year, I splurged on a twenty game package for Dodgers games. That allowed me into the stadium an hour earlier than plebian ticket holders so I could watch the Dodgers take batting practice. I did that a few times. I have played fantasy baseball for decades. When I go to a game, I keep score, because if I’m ever present for a super-rarity (e.g., a perfect game, hitting for the cycle, or unassisted triple play), I want a record of it. I love the rhythm of the game (what many people find boring). It is the perfect summer sport because you can relax as you watch it. Sure, it has its times of tension, but they are spaced throughout the game. I say all that to let you know that this all means something to me. (I won’t go into theologizing about baseball—that’s just too easy.)
I have to say I have mixed feelings about this season. I can understand the owners and players wanting to get some sort of season in. For many that is a financial reason, but it also speaks to their competitive mindset. But I’m speaking as a fan. I could make the argument that baseball should close shop for the year. Sixty games seems like nothing when you think of the normal 162 game season. But at the same time, as a fan, I’m anxious to watch some games on TV (maybe even on my phone if I have to). Let’s face it, it’s been a hard year. We need something to take our minds off all the bad stuff.
At the beginning of World War II, there was talk of shutting down baseball. Some of the best player had already enlisted to fight. There were more important things for able-bodied men to be doing than shagging flies or turning double plays. But, in his ‘Green Light Letter’ to Kenesaw Mountain Landis (the Federal judge who served as Commissioner of Baseball), the President said:
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and hard than ever before. And that means they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Of course, the employment part of this is reversed in our pandemic setting. Instead, we have been through times when parks and restaurants have been closed; movie theaters are still closed; we have hair that makes us look like hippies; we get excited about a trip to the hardware store. We also need “a chance for recreation and for taking our minds off” our hardships. So, yes, the baseball season, such as it is, is a welcome diversion from the boredom and depression that the last few months have made seem normal.
Of course, there are also some problems. A sixty game season doesn’t really test the mettle of the teams. A hot streak could be all it takes to push into the playoffs. In a normal season, there are some players who have slow starts.
This year, that could mean a really bad season.
On the other hand, there are also players who fade as the season wears on. For them this could be their only shot at MVP. Does that threaten the legitimacy of the season and the eventual World Series champion?
Let’s look again at World War II. Some of the best players (Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg) enlisted. As more and more men went to the war, the minor leagues dried up, making the pool of players even smaller. By 1945, Pete Gray roamed the outfield for the St. Louis Browns, finishing the season with a .218 batting average. He lost his right arm in an accident as a child. Speaking of the Browns (the epitome of haplessness), they won their only American League pennant in 1944. (Even after they became the Baltimore Orioles it would be more than 20 years before that happened again.) And World War II was also the reason for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (cf. the movie A League of Their Own). Yes, World War II brought some strange things to baseball, but that is one of the things I love about baseball—it creates wonderful lore. The COVID season will probably add to baseball’s delightful mythos.
But there is also a dark side to this baseball season. The players, coaches, umpires, and various stadium personnel are all placing themselves (and their families) at a certain level of risk. Some players have opted out of the season because of that risk. Others may contract the virus in the course of the season. They (or their families) could get sick. Even if they are asymptomatic, they will have to stay away from the team until they are clear (which requires two negative tests twenty-four hours apart). To try to mitigate these risks players will self-screen before they leave home and be screened again at the ballpark. They will be tested every other day. For the players this is good precautionary action.
But this level of testing does raise one of the big problems in how I view the season. The owners are paying for this testing and have even hired their own lab so that the results are done quickly. But where I live testing is not encouraged unless you have symptoms or have close contact with someone who is positive. And then, you may have to wait a week or more for the results. It smacks of privilege for the rich (and most of the ballplayers easily qualify as that). While many people who need testing have to wait in long lines and then wait several days for results, baseball players get to go to the front of the line. I’m not against the players getting tested. But it reflects some of the flaws in our society that have been exposed by the pandemic.
(I should temper this accusation of privilege with a recognition that many of these very well-paid athletes have been very generous in giving to help people who have been affected by the pandemic—both in and out of baseball. It’s worth noting that for all the debating between owners and players about pay while the season was on hold, that many of these people assume an obligation to care for others out of the wealth the game has generated for them.)
Yet, even though there are things about this season that should make us think twice about affirming the idea of the COVID season, as a fan I’m ready for the shout of “Play ball!” Let’s appreciate the stillness that baseball brings. Let’s enjoy the skills on display. Let’s be thankful that the players are willing to go through the testing and risk for us to enjoy their game. But let’s also push for the changes that are so needed in the real world.